A luscious piece of cake—a piece of white or marble cake with a lemon-curd filling, and topped with butter cream frosting adorned with colorful butter cream roses. That’s all I wanted on January 17, my birthday. My partner, Chad, was planning to treat me to a dinner on my special day. “No,” I explained. “I want to find a piece of birthday cake like the kind my Mom used to order for me when I was a young boy.”
Chad joked that was centuries ago, before CDs, DVDs, cell phones, and microwave ovens. I pondered for a moment. Was he right? Maybe it wasn’t as good as I remembered. However, a couple days before my birthday, I began my search.
Deciding that I would limit my exploration to actual bakeries, I stopped at the bakery closest to our home—P.J. Murphy’s on Randolph Avenue in St. Paul. I saw several birthday cakes beautifully and colorfully ornamented behind the glass case. The woman at the counter asked if she could help me. I told her I was hunting for a single piece of birthday cake. She scanned me swiftly to see if I was harmful to myself and/or to others. Once I explained my logic, she laughed nervously, and told me that they only sell entire cakes, saying, “You could buy the whole cake, eat one piece, and give the rest away.” So, I moved on.
Driving down Selby Avenue in St. Paul, I noticed a bakery named A Piece of Cake. Bingo! I made a U-turn in the middle of the street, found parking on the street, and happily walked into the place. I saw lots of pies and attractively decorated cakes. I asked the counter woman which cakes were sold by the piece. She replied, “We don’t sell by the piece. We sell the whole cake.” I insisted in disbelief, “But your sign outside advertises ‘A Piece of Cake.’” I asked, “What about pie? Do you sell slices of pie?” Stating, “We have cupcakes, but you would have to order them a day ahead,” she moved on to the next customer, who was happy to purchase an entire half-sheet of cake.
I was devastated. I called Chad to tell him about my disastrous search. He suggested Amore Coffee on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. I knew that they offered incredible triple-layered chocolate cake and carrot cake to die for, but I was on a mission for what I initially craved. Nevertheless, I stopped anyway at Amore to enjoy their chocolate cake.
Afterward, I ran home, logged on to the blog ChowHound.com, and blogged “Looking for a piece of birthday cake.” The responses were swift, suggesting Lund’s grocery stores; Café Latte, corner of Grand and Victoria, St. Paul; Franklin Street Bakery, 1020 East Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis; and Brasa, 600 East Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, whose menu offers “birthday cake with butter cream frosting.” Other suggestions were Birchwood Café, 3311 East 25th St, Minneapolis; and Bravo! Cafe & Bakery, 1106 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, which offers exotic types of cake such as green tea with red bean frosting.
My birthday arrived, and I worked all day setting up at the Food Stage for the Minneapolis Women’s Expo—I was the headlining chef. Around 6 PM, I looked at Chad, and told him that I wasn’t going to have much of a birthday. He suggested we go to my favorite restaurant: Figlio. Good suggestion. We had a wonderful dinner. Our server brought me a very large red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting, topped with a candle that flickered tiny sparks.
Weeks later, and no special birthday cake found (I ran out of time, and need to visit Brasa soon), my good friend and neighbor, Mona, and I spent an afternoon at the Global Market on Lake Street. We walked into Stall 141, Panaderia El Mexicano. They offered wonderful Mexican bakery goods and sweets. Here, we could purchase pieces of cake for $3 each, with had a large selection to choose from—tres leches, strawberries with rum, mocha, piña colada, and several other flavors. Mona and I ordered two different flavors that we shared. They were magnificent. Owner Filiberto Onefor commented, “We are the pioneers and the authentic house of traditional Mexican cakes in the Twin Cities since 1999.”
My goal of finding one single slice of birthday cake at an official bakery wasn’t successful, but I learned a great deal about the Twin Cities and cake. Most bakeries have become wholesale, or restaurants have their own. Let’s hope I find my special piece of cake by my next birthday. Or, perhaps Chad was right—it was a long time ago, and I remembered it as better than it really was.
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private events, and culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit www.GardenCounty.info. Check out his new “Word of Mouth” Blog under “Extras” at www.LavenderMagazine.com.